Free – Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi

Lea Ypi’s early life was spent in the last years of a Communist Albanian regime  even more ideologically  extreme than the USSR. Her charismatic teacher Nora indoctrinated her to revere Stalin as a source of inspiration for people round the world, a kindly man who loved children. Following the death of “Uncle Enver”, the anti-revisionist dictator who dominated Albania for forty years, Lea pestered her parents  to show due respect by displaying a large photograph of him. Perhaps this was to compensate for her awareness of never being able to “fit in”, because her parents were what Nora dismissively called “intellectuals”, with the wrong “Biography”.

Her father called himself Zafo, to avoid the need to apologise for having the same name as “Xhaferr”, the Axis-supporting “quisling” politician during WW2, while her maternal grandmother had lived abroad in luxury in her youth, and aroused suspicion by speaking French. It was a bizarre society in which people knew each other’s business, helped each other out with loans, but were not above informing on neighbours as reactionaries who failed to do their stint of street cleaning on Sundays or made jokes about the Party. Life revolved around queues for scarce goods, with the ritual of honouring a can or stone left to mark one’s place in the line.

If  anecdotes of daily life, details of family history and explanation of the political background all seem disjointed and at times unclear, this serves to convey Lea’s sense of confusion, which was compounded when the Communist system broke down and many who had been ardent supporters of the old regime suddenly discarded their principles, and denied they had ever believed in the Party line  Even Lia’s parents were found to have been concealing their past – Xhaferr really had been a relative –  leaving Lea  to wonder whom to believe or trust.

“Communism, the society we aspired to create, where class conflict would disappear and the free abilities of each would be fully developed was gone too. It was gone not only as an ideal, not only as a system of rule, but as a category of thought.  Only one word was left: freedom”.

The freedom to travel abroad on borrowed money revealed that life in the West was not superior in every way – Lea discovered that teenagers in Athens could not identify Ulysses, but knew all about some cartoon mouse called Mickey of which she was unaware!

Lea’s family were clearly not typical in that her father eventually obtained a senior post which brought him into contact with the Prime Minister, while her mother made political speeches campaigning successfully for her husband, whom she had decided had a better chance of being elected as an MP. They appear oddly unworldly at times, hiding their money in an old coat rather than using a bank, although this proved a better option than the loss of their savings in an unwise investment.   

However, the new democracy turning out to be possibly even more corrupt and inefficient than its predecessor, the country lapsed into civil war, which Lea covers with scrappy extracts from her  teenage diary – perhaps because she was running out of time after the weeks spent writing her memoir in a Berlin cupboard during the pandemic, when she should have been home-schooling her children.

Although uneven in quality, this is a fascinating insight into a country now very topical with the focus on thousands of Albanian men, economic migrants paying smugglers to cross illegally to the UK. Ironically, Lea’s disenchantment with “freedom” may have led to her breaking a promise to her father when having insisted on studying philosophy abroad, she ended up as an academic teaching and researching Marxism – for which she makes a somewhat woolly case in the final rushed pages. One clear explanation stands out: “My family equated socialism with denial: the denial of who they wanted to be, of the right to make mistakes and learn from the, to explore the world on one’s own terms. I equated liberalism with broken promises, the destruction of solidarity, the right to inherit privilege, turning a blind eye to injustice”.

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